At home in the Arabian Gulf, I’ve never felt unsafe as a Jew
By Houda Nonoo
While antisemitism is on the rise in the West, it is not an issue here in the region, including in Bahrain. That’s why more Jews are coming to the GCC.
As reports of antisemitic attacks rise throughout the West, Jewish life in the East flourishes at an unprecedented pace with an increasing number of Jews visiting and moving to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. As a Bahraini Jew, it is particularly upsetting to see the alarming reports of attacks against Jews in the United States. We don’t have an issue with that here.
Our Muslim country is incredibly proud of our Jewish community, which has been part of the fabric of Bahraini society for more than 140 years. The reason we live in harmony is because of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s vision for creating a society built upon the core values of interfaith respect and co-existence. Countries in the West must make a greater effort to embrace these same principles in order to protect their Jewish citizens.
Bahrain, an island long known for its tolerance, coexistence, and freedom of religion, has always welcomed people from different faiths and backgrounds to its shores. Modern Jewish life in Bahrain began in the 1880s, when Jews from Iraq, were looking for better economic and living prospects and decided to leave for India. On the way, the boat stopped in Bahrain, and they decided to stay. Since then, Jewish life in the Kingdom has flourished and we have always had access to the same opportunities that the Kingdom offers to all citizens and residents of all religious backgrounds.
Our Bahraini Jewish families have always lived alongside Bahraini Muslim families. Our grandparents shared stories of their neighbors helping to heat their food on Shabbat. Generations later, we naturally continue to celebrate important events together, including attending each other’s weddings, our participation in their iftar meals, and their visits to our recently renovated synagogue. Under His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s leadership, Bahrain has been committed to spreading a culture of peace, dialogue and coexistence. These values are inculcated within us as young children, and they guide how we live as adults. It is for this very reason that we haven’t had any issues with antisemitism in Bahrain.
If we look more broadly at the GCC as a whole, we are seeing more Jews visit and move to the region for a variety of reasons – one of which, is that it is a much safer place to raise a Jewish family. As a result, in February, we created the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, the people-to-people network of Jewish communities from the GCC countries that are developing Jewish life in the region, with the aim of providing programs and services for our growing community. In less than six months, thousands have attended our virtual and in-person programs. Our events include interfaith elements, and we invite local Muslims to participate in the programs. One point they share often in these conversations is how excited they are to see Jewish life growing here. It’s because they are also dedicated to creating a society and environment built on interfaith respect and co-existence.
At our recent Yom HaShoah program, we heard from two Bahraini Muslims and two Emirati Muslims who shared their experience visiting Yad Vashem for the first time last December. As I listened to them share their experience and perspective on why co-existence is so important to them, it drove home a very poignant point to me – having our Muslim friends show their support on a day where Jewish communities around the world remember one of our darkest periods gives us hope that something like that won’t happen again because we live in a more tolerant society where our Muslim friends will stand up for us, and in turn, we would do the same for them.
Nearly one month after that event, we started reading and watching the news reports of the violent antisemitic attacks taking place in Europe and the United States. It was all the more shocking and foreign for us to watch the video clips making their way around social media because it is a foreign concept for us.
As a Jew living in the Muslim world, I am often asked if it is safe to be Jewish in Bahrain. The answer is a wholehearted yes. I have never once been in a situation where I was nervous to be identified as a Jew. I am horrified to hear stories of Jews in Europe and the United States who don’t feel the same in their home country. Hearing that someone is scared to wear their Kippah in New York City is frightening. Yet, one can walk through the streets of Bahrain and not receive a single negative comment. Government leaders in the West must put a greater emphasis on making sure that interfaith dialogue and co-existence permeate all levels of society, it’s the only way to stymie the growth of antisemitism.